September 26, 2016

Helping PR pros make smarter decisions

Can interface changes save the news?

Can interface changes save the news?

Venture capitalist Fred Wilson recently posted a piece on paying for news, a topic that is much-considered and frequently discussed here on Media Bullseye.

Wilson’s piece made note of a few interesting bits of information he gleaned from asking some Millennials if they’d pay for news. He found that:

  • Some were happy to pay, others said “no way”;
  • Yet another answer focused on the interface—they’d pay, but only if the interface worked for them;
  • Women were more likely than men to be willing to pay for news.

The post and a few of the comments focus on the interface question—does the interface of news delivery matter to the point of being willing to subscribe or pay for news? This is an interesting angle, but I think it might be a bit too narrow an issue to draw any conclusions about the potential fate of the news industry based solely on an answer to this question.

People are clearly getting more of their news on mobile devices, but a study by The Knight Foundation released in May shows that this trend may be reaching a plateau.  If so, it might not be worth it for newspapers to devote resources to try to determine if an interface change would move the needle on paying for news—mostly because by now, consumption habits will have already become somewhat ingrained. What you’re used to becomes the de facto setting, and changing those habits while attaching a price to them might yield some new customers, but at what expense to the media outlet? It’s a pretty high bar to change behavior while adding a cost.

At this point, it’s a cost-benefit analysis for news media, and sinking a lot of resources into developing a new interface isn’t going to cause readers to flock en masse to buying subscriptions—which is sort of the point we’re at right now. Wilson is correct in stating that “the user experience question looms large in the news business”; but I think it’s also likely that even a killer app won’t be sufficient to save the industry. As the Poynter piece linked to above notes, mobile app users are “a small but dedicated audience.” It’s important to hold on to that audience, but it is unlikely that it will expand substantially.

In addition to the interface question, there is some back-and-forth in the comments about what matters to readers. This, too, points to some significant differences that will likely continue to pose a challenge for media outlets. One person wants to discover the “hidden gems” or quirky stories that will provide him with an edge; another wants the big stories but with high quality.

Because news consumption is so critical to the practice of public relations, the changes in the media business model are of prime importance to us; suggestions and discussions of what might compel people to pay for news are equally important. As Paul Gillin recently noted on the Roundtable, simply giving readers “what they want” isn’t enough to ensure that media, in the role of watchdog of democracy, can survive.

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About The Author

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for just over 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR work, content creation, and digital and social communications and media analysis.

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